America’s 193 million acres of national forests are critical to our future. Roughly a quarter of the forests in our country, our national forests were originally created to protect our public water supplies and meet other shared needs of the American people. Today we also understand their pivotal role in modern challenges like slowing climate change, and new climate-driven threats we must overcome to keep these lands healthy and resilient.
Congress now has an important opportunity to keep our national forests in fighting trim so they can meet all of America’s needs. That’s because bipartisan leaders in the U.S. Senate, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), have just introduced the Reforestation Act of 2019, which would dramatically accelerate tree planting and other reforestation activities that have been lagging across our national forests.
Wait, plant trees on national forests? Aren’t they already covered in trees?
Unfortunately, not all of them. Our forests are seeing some of the most immediate impacts of climate change. Forests have slowly adapted over centuries to certain climatic conditions, and now they are weakening, dying, and burning at alarming rates in our rapidly changing climate.
In California, almost 150 million trees have died since 2010 from a synergy of drought, wildfire, and other forest threats. Nationally, the area burned by wildfire has spiked to over 10 million acres burned — double historical norms — in some recent years.
Many of these dead and burned-over areas are on national forests, and won’t recover without our help. Sometimes this involves tree planting, other times lighter touch treatments like clearing competing vegetation so that forests can regrow effectively after a wildfire. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has not had adequate funding to keep up with this pressing need.
That is where the Reforestation Act of 2019 comes in. In 1980, Congress had the wisdom to set up a Reforestation Trust Fund to make sure the U.S. Forest Service would always have enough money to replant national forests. The cap on the fund was set at $30 million, which at the time was sufficient.
With more acres to reforest each year and rising costs for inputs like tree seedlings, this is now less than half of the funding needed to keep up. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service has a growing waiting list of well over a million acres awaiting reforestation, with hundreds of thousands more acres that need reforestation each year.
The new Reforestation Act led by Senators Portman, Udall, and Stabenow would fix this by lifting the outdated cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund from $30 million to $60 million. This would give the U.S. Forest Service the dedicated annual funding it so desperately needs to catch up and keep up with reforesting our national forests and ensuring they are healthy.
The good news is that the money is just waiting. Congress dedicated certain tariffs on foreign wood imports to fill the Reforestation Trust Fund each year, and these revenues now exceed $100 million annually — more than enough to provide the additional funding needed for reforestation. Otherwise, these funds will just continue to disappear into the general treasury.
The legislation also directs the Forest Service to clear its reforestation waiting list in no more than 10 years, and to report to Congress on its progress for oversight purposes. This will create new focus and accountability in the agency’s reforestation efforts, regardless of political shifts or competing priorities in the years ahead.
The impact of this new legislation cannot be overstated.
- An additional 1 million national forest acres would be reforested every five years above current levels.
- Each additional 1 million reforested acres would sequester carbon dioxide emissions equal to burning more than 200 billion pounds of coal.
- Reforested lands would include essential public water supply areas, such as California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s Front Range, which provide water for local communities and millions of people downstream.
- Reforested lands would also benefit iconic recreation trails and habitats for species such as the grizzly bear.
- The increased reforestation will create thousands of green jobs, primarily in rural economies.
My organization, American Forests, played a leading role in creating the U.S. Forest Service and our national forests more than 100 years ago. We have stood ever since for the principle that the federal government should do whatever is needed to take care of these lands on behalf of all citizens. The Reforestation Act of 2019 renews this historic commitment to care for our national forests. Let’s rally behind this noble bipartisan effort to keep our national forests healthy and resilient for people today and future generations.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.